The Real Story Behind Historic Hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ That Might Be the Next Big Show on Broadway

It’s one of the most popular hymns in history, though many Americans likely don’t know a great deal about the real-life story behind “Amazing Grace” and its author John Newton — a tale so gripping that it’s the centerpiece of a new pre-Broadway show.

That production, also titled “Amazing Grace,” is set to open this month on Broadway in Chicago — and producers promise that the story will tackle themes pertaining to “romance, rebellion and redemption,” while shedding new light on the life of Newton, the British abolitionist who authored the historic hymn.

An image from rehearsals of "Amazing Grace" (Beatrice Copeland)
An image from rehearsals of “Amazing Grace” (Beatrice Copeland)

“John Newton … a willful and musically talented young Englishman, faces a future as uncertain as the turning tide,” an official description reads. “Coming of age as Britain sits atop an international empire of slavery, he finds himself torn between following in the footsteps of father — a slave trader — and embracing the more compassionate views of his childhood sweetheart.”

Newton, who lived from 1725 until 1807, was originally involved in the slave trade, but ended up leaving the industry behind, becoming an evangelical Christian and a noted writer who penned “Amazing Grace.”

He was also a vocal proponent of the abolitionist movement, decrying his past acts and speaking out in an effort to end slavery.

The pre-Broadway show’s storyline explores how Newton’s mind was transformed and how he was led to write the revered song — a touching, real-life story that “Amazing Grace” producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland believes will profoundly inspire audiences.

She recently told TheBlaze that she’s confident theater goers will find Newton’s character, demeanor and background quite fascinating.

Beatrice Copeland
Beatrice Copeland

“He’s not a goody two-shoes at all … he has a very dark past, but he comes full circle,” Copeland said. “But also, he changed the course of history and [few Americans] know about him.”

She said that Newton’s story takes a “drastic detour” when he changes his ways and returns to his Christian faith — a transformational evolution that she said “makes great theater.”

“Certainly, you’re going to be more knowledgeable when you walk out the door about who this man was and what he did for us and the world,” she said. “You’re going to be more informed.”

“Amazing Grace” is unique for a great many reasons, but among them is its focus on faith — a theme that’s very rare in the theater world.

Past attempts at attracting religious audiences haven’t fared well and Copeland believes it’s because the approach hasn’t been quite right.

And considering that this is the so called “year of the Bible” in Hollywood, it’s only fitting that a stage show would attempt to also serve audiences with ideals that are revered by the vast majority of the population — values that flow into a timeless and historic narrative.

Beatrice Copeland
Beatrice Copeland

All this in mind, getting “Amazing Grace” to the stage has been no easy feat. After hard work and dedication that spanned seven years and $12 million, the show will begin with previews October 9 on Broadway in Chicago.

Copeland told TheBlaze that she knew when she first heard the music — written by former Pennsylvania police officer Christopher Smith — that it was something special.

That was years ago, long before the lyrics and music were infused into a big-stage play — a process that Copeland orchestrated and has overseen from the start.

As she and her team progressed on the journey toward getting what started as mere music and narration codified into a pre-Broadway show, she said there were many ups and downs along the way.

But two years ago, while producing a smaller version of the show, Copeland said she could truly see that they had something special and needed to stay the course.

Beatrice Copeland
Beatrice Copeland

“That’s when we knew that we had to keep going, because the audiences told us they loved it,” Copeland said. “So we knew we had something.”

Now, she’s hoping that the four-week run in Chicago beginning later this week will help her team learn some valuable lessons that can help setup “Amazing Grace” for future success on one of New York’s famed Broadway stages.

“Chicago is a very smart town and they have a very active theater community,” she told TheBlaze. “So we could get a good solid four-week run there and learn something about our show from an audience that’s going to give us good information.”

Copeland believes audiences will “get hooked.”

“I’ve done a lot of shows, but, when I read and heard ‘Amazing Grace’ I thought it had the potential to do what [‘Les Miserables’] did,” she said of the impact she believes the show could have.

For more about “Amazing Grace” or to get tickets visit Broadway in Chicago.

Follow Billy Hallowell on Twitter (@BillyHallowell) and Facebook.